This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the eighteenth of twenty-six short reflections.
In modern times the Book of Revelation has inspired certain kinds of evangelicals to embrace dispensationalism, a 19th century theology orginally propagated among the Plymouth Brethren, in which God carves up time into various eras or dispensations. In one of the last dispensations Christians are “raptured” or sucked up into the sky by a sacred vacuum cleaner, and those left behind deal with the “Beast” and the “false prophets” as they wreak all kinds of violence and evil on the Earth. Indeed, that’s the whole premise of the “Left Behind” series of books. If all of this is new to you, that’s because you haven’t been inside the bubble of Premillennial Evangelicalism. Tribulation sells really well, especially when it is turned into thriller fiction where new converts to the Christian faith are battling it out with the Antichrist and his new world order.
However, you do not have to be a Christian of this sort to be influenced by Revelation. In the middle of the 19th century, in the middle of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe, the wife of a radical abolitionist – an American physician who fought in the Greek War of Independence, had sheltered runaway slaves in his home in Boston, and had helped fund John Brown in his raid upon Harpers Ferry – saw the campfires of Union troops and and was inspired to write a poem that celebrated the great conflict in Apocalyptic terms.
You know this as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. These are the original words.
1 Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
2 I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
3 I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.
4 He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
5 In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
6 He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.
If you’ve been reading through Revelation, it is pretty obvious that Julia Ward Howe had been, too, as well as other parts of the Bible. In just the first verse we sing:
- the glory of the coming of the Lord Ward was describing the Second Coming, when Christ as the Son of Man would come to judge the world.
- He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored is an image derived from Revelation 14:19-20: “So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.”
- He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. Revelation refers to a sword coming from the mouth of the judge in 19: 15: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This seems to be derived from Isaiah 27: 1 “On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.”
Now, the abolition of slavery in the United States, before the Civil War, was thought to be a utopian dream, and was strongly challenged by slaveholders and racists. In fact, the opposition to it was so great that in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln, a moderate opponent of slavery who would have been satisfied with the prevention of its extension into any new states, nine slave states rebelled against the authority of the federal state and attempted to secede. The war to preserve the Union forced the issue of slavery, and Lincoln concluded that if he emancipated the slaves he would have a better chance of winning the war, crushing the rebellion, and preserving the Union. And so it came to pass that the slaves were freed, and the Reconstruction Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (as well as some other federal legislation) forced the South to accept African-Americans as equals. This came to an ugly end after the presidency of U. S. Grant, when the federal government withdrew federal troops from the South, and allowed segregation and Jim Crow to arise.
At the time, in the midst of the war, all of this seemed quite astonishing. The only way Ward could make sense of it was to draw on the apocalyptic language of Revelation and other parts of scripture, and the result was a remarkable hymn that reverberated then among the scripturally knowledgeable population of the States.
In contrast to Howe who saw Revelation being worked out in the violence of war, there are Christian radicals who read Revelation in a non-violent manner, and then apply it in their own activism. Nick Megoran, a geographer (!) at Newcastle University, in an article from 2012 entitled “Radical politics and the Apocalypse: activist readings of Revelation” noted this in the writings of contemporary New Testament scholars such as N.T (Tom) Wright, Ben Witherington, Patricia McDonald, as well as theologians such as Mark Bredin and John Yoder. Megoran looks at the work of two individuals, namely Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016) and William Stringfellow (1928–1985).
Berrigan was a major anti-war activist and Jesuit priest who, with his brother Philip, also a priest, came to the notice of the US population and the FBI when he denounced US involvement in the Vietnam War. Megoran writes:
Using the imagery of Revelation, Berrigan adds that in [the CIA and the Pentagon] ‘A chief principality is horridly, boldly on display: obscene, unashamed, up front, the cosmic whore of Revelation bedizened with her resources and wares’. Berrigan thus reads Revelation as the unveiling of imperial power. This power is unveiled not only as violent, but also as arrogant in deluding itself that it plays a beneficent, even divine, role in human history. In terrorising the world’s poor by its foreign policy, and in claiming an exceptional role as a divine agent in spreading liberty, it is the USA par excellence that represents Revelation’s Babylon today.
This argument is developed in Berrigan’s 1983 book about Revelation, The Nightmare of God. A core theme is how the American empire remains oblivious to its identity as Babylon. He draws out how Revelation depicts the continued inability, the refusal, of Babylon to learn from the judgments of God:
“Babylon’s moral life is not a passage from crime to repentance, but only from crime to crime. Ourselves? From no-one do we hear, after Vietnam, ‘Remember, and repent.’ Only, ‘forget and forget.’ Thus our history becomes a progressive breakaway from all restraint. The empire rides and flogs the four horses: death, plague, famine, war in her wake. And we call it civilisation, sanity.”
William Stringfellow was a lay Episcopalian, a lawyer, active in the Sojourners community, and involved in the World Council of Churches. Megoran writes that Stringfellow elucidated his position in
the 1973 text An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Here he writes that he wants to understand America Biblically, not construe the Bible ‘Americanly’, as has been the norm. The text majors on the Babylon passages in the book of Revelation, reading them as a parable of the operation of principalities and powers, primarily states, in any place in human history. Revelation reveals death as the social purpose behind such powers, and represents their traits. For Stringfellow, the conceit that America is the New Jerusalem is Biblical illiteracy: rather, America today stands in the place of Babylon in Revelation.
‘Stringfellow’s work was not commentary on Revelation, but the reverse: Revelation commenting on “us”’, write activists Howard-Brook and Gwyther. Stringfellow elucidates many aspects of contemporary American politics through appeals to the Babylon parable. Crises of foreign war, ecological corruption, racism, urban chaos, unemployment and deception make victims of the poor. But these forces also make victims of elites like Presidents who become pathetically dehumanised as captives to the power of death in the principalities that they work for. For Stringfellow, Revelation does not give ‘policy answers’: rather, it shows how to live ethically, how to hope and to celebrate human life, knowing that God has ultimately defeated death. This entails resisting the cultures of death, for resistance is the only way to live humanly. But, against much contemporary revolutionism, it is to resist without recourse back to death-dealing.
In his conclusion Megoran notes that Apocalypticism is a means of resistance to the powers of Empire. He gives the example of Allan Boesak, the South African anti-apartheid activist:
Boesak’s book, Comfort and protest (1987), is a commentary on Revelation, or, perhaps more accurately, a commentary on the Apartheid regime performed through a reading of the book of Revelation. He identifies specific Apartheid policies and official proclamations, comparing them to the Rome/Babylon of Revelation.
I suspect that it is tempting for many to abandon Revelation to the American right-wing evangelicals, with their incredibly profitable multimedia franchises which frame the judgement of God in speculative, poorly grounded fantasies of violence on liberals and the peoples of the world. However, the book is too important and powerful for responsible Christians to do that. We need to read it as John intended, as a critique of oppressive Empires, and as hope in the midst of much suffering.
Tomorrow I will look at how Handel used Revelation in The Messiah – a non-radical, non-left wing use of Apocalyptic.